Eight team, six places - who'll be booking their place for London?
KAUNAS (EuroBasket 2011) - With the second round now behind us, London now quite literally gets closer for eight teams as the tournament moves west to Kaunas for the final stages.
When EuroBasket arrived at the same stage in the previous tournament that doubled as an Olympic qualifier in Madrid, Spain in 2007; six of the eight teams that were there then are again here now in 2011. Of those six teams Spain, Russia, Lithuania and Greece would go on to book Olympic berths whilst Slovenia would fail in their bid to experience the Olympics for the first time in their short history, and France would not be able to return for the first time since winning silver back in Sydney in 2000.
Joining those six in the final eight are newcomers F.Y.R. of Macedonia who have never before made it to this stage in a tournament and hence never been to the Olympics; and Serbia who are hoping to return to the Olympics following an eight year absence.
Playing in the first quarterfinal on Wednesday, Spain will be confident of moving one step closer to direct Olympic qualification when they take on a Slovenian side whose time in Lithuania has to date resembled something of a rollercoaster. Slovenia's recent talk - at least to the media - has been that a top six finish and the subsequent Olympic Qualifying Tournament berth are where their ambitions lie.
Having exceeded expectations by making it this far, F.Y.R. of Macedonia will be feeling the pressure released from their shoulders, which may well be a key factor when taking on Lithuania, for whom the pressure will mount every day, in the second of Wednesday's semis.
F.Y.R. of Macedonia Head Coach Marin Dokuzovski has seen little minutes from his bench in this tournament and fatigue in his key players may start to play a role. Coupled with the fact that it looks likely that inspirational starting center Todor Gechevski will miss the game with injury, F.Y.R of Macedonia could be struggling against the Lithuanians, who will have the unwavering support of the crowd behind them and who benefit from an extra day's rest.
With some teams looking to the future by bringing a number of fresh faces to this year's tournament, France is one team bucking the trend with their minds firmly set on winning EuroBasket and worrying about the Olympics later with French Head Coach Vincent Collet telling FIBA that this team was brought to play this tournament alone with no places within the side guaranteed for next year.
On the other hand, Collet's Greek counterpart Ilias Zouros has stated time and again that this tournament's team is one for the future, with a number of veteran players staying at home or being left there. Zouros' work in progress will have the ultimate test against a French team bringing back Tony Parker and Joakim Noah who were both rested in France's previous outing.
The last time that Russia needed to qualify for the Olympics they didso by beating World Champions Spain in the final of EuroBasket 2007. If they are to take the same direct qualifying route here then they are going to have to continue the tournament as the only unbeaten team up until the gold medal game.
Fresh off a win over F.Y.R. of Macedonia, Russia also showed they can get the job done without star Andrei Kirilenko who had an off-night shooting.
Yet despite their unbeaten status, Russia remain wary as they prepare to take on Serbia who only made it this far when Turkey's Ersan Ilyasova missed a buzzer-beater that would have instead put his team in the last eight.
Having arrived to this point in such a fashion Serbia will now be all the more determined not to go home and as Russian Head Coach David Blatt pointed out to media, they will also be all the better for having had a rest day more than the Russians.